How Doug Jones Can Win

To pull off the upset, he’ll need to convert white voters.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by REUTERS/Marvin Gentry and Inunotaisho26/Wikipedia.
Doug Jones

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Marvin Gentry/Reuters and Inunotaisho26/Wikipedia.

Doug Jones has a chance. Allegations of sexual assault have turned Judge Roy Moore’s already divisive campaign toxic, opening the door to a Democratic Party upset. But to make that happen, the Jones campaign has two major tasks. First, he has to build out his base, i.e., the black voters who form the foundation for Democratic Party performance in the state. Second, he has to win an unprecedented share of white voters. And for as much as the polls show real opportunities for Jones, any effort to win over Alabama whites will be a tremendously difficult uphill battle.

The most eye-popping poll since the Washington Post first reported the allegations against Moore came last week from the National Republican Senate Committee, which showed Jones with a 12-point lead over Moore, who the NRSC has tried to push out of the race. Public polling is more modest but increasingly shows Jones ahead. One recent poll, from Fox News, shows him with an 8 percentage point lead over Moore, 50 percent to 42 percent, with 9 percent undecided. The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia recently moved the race from “likely Republican” to “leans Democratic,” and while the Real Clear Politics average still gives an advantage to Moore, it’s a slight one: just 3 points, in a state that Donald Trump won by 28.

Winning black support will be key for Jones, but unfortunately there’s only so much room for growth. Even the best case scenario isn’t quite enough. In 2008, according to exit polls, black turnout grew 4 percentage points over the previous election, from 25 percent of the electorate to 29 percent. And Barack Obama, who helped drive that turnout, won 98 percent of black Alabamans. Despite this historic performance, Obama finished with just under 39 percent of the vote in Alabama. His historic support with black voters couldn’t overcome the drubbing he took from white ones; just 10 percent of white Alabama voters backed Obama. Eighty-eight percent supported John McCain. Jones will need to bring as many black voters as possible to the polls, but he’ll also have to convert some white voters.

The problem is that, since the 2008 election, white voters in Alabama have only become more Republican, with Trump winning near-unanimous support among whites in the 2016 election. Heightening the challenge is the shape of the white electorate in the state. Some Republican states are largely rural; others are highly religious and evangelical in particular. And still others have high levels of white racial polarization. Alabama has all three. Its white voters are rural, polarized along racial lines, and more likely to identify as evangelical than not.

Where can Jones gain ground? The Senate primary offers one answer. While Moore dominated the state, beating Luther Strange by nearly 10 points, he lost three of its most dense counties: Jefferson (home to Birmingham), Shelby, and Madison (home to Huntsville). It’s here that Jones may attract the more moderate and college-educated Republicans who backed Strange and are alienated by Moore and the allegations against him. To make his happen, Jones will likely have to tread carefully, downplaying his liberal views and keeping the national Democratic Party at arm’s length, lest he present himself as too much of a partisan and drive wavering Republican voters to the other side.

This gets to the other part of the equation. The reason Jones has a chance are the allegations against Roy Moore, which have converted some Republicans and discouraged others. A smaller electorate means a lower threshold for victory. Moore seems to know this; he is portraying himself as a martyr—under attack by so-called liberal elites—in hopes that this will bring his supporters to the polls in his defense. But new stories and revelations raise the odds that Moore will keep losing supporters, demoralized or disgusted by events. What Jones has to do, then, is not step on the story and let it play itself out while he campaigns.

For a model of how Jones might win, it’s worth looking to the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial race, where Democrat John Bel Edwards faced the scandal-plagued David Vitter. In addition to mobilizing black voters and the handful of white Democrats still left in the state, Edwards capitalized on broad disgust with Vitter as well as a larger culture of corruption and dysfunction in the state. The resulting combination of Democratic turnout, Republican defections, and Republican apathy allowed him to capture the governorship. (He was helped too by his conservative views on guns and abortion, a trait not shared by Jones.)

There are a lot of ifs for Doug Jones. If he can bring black voters to the polls, if he can convert Republicans to his cause, and if Moore supporters are demoralized and apathetic, then he has a path to victory. But the Jones campaign has yet to falter, and the political mood feels increasingly in his favor. Doug Jones has a chance, and he may yet make good on the opportunity.